By Lauren Takores
NORTH HAVEN — On Sunday, Quinnipiac University’s School of Law will graduate 88 students who studied on the local campus.
Among them will be Denia Perez, a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.
She plans to work on immigration legal issues in New York City after receiving her juris doctorate from Quinnipiac.
Perez, 28, came to the United States from Mexico when she was 11 months old. Her family lived in San Francisco, and when she was 8 they moved to Santa Rosa, California.
DACA became law in 2012 when Perez was 21. Under DACA, eligible adults who were brought to the U.S. as children can receive a two-year deferment from deportation and an Employment Authorization Document.
An EAD allows a person to work in the U.S. DACA is renewable every two years.
An estimated 3.6 million undocumented immigrants were brought to the U.S. as children under age 18, according to a study by the Migration Policy Institute. When DACA became law, an estimated 1.7 million people were eligible, according to the Pew Research Center. Since then, more than 750,000 people have received DACA.Perez’s story
Perez graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in women’s and gender studies the year DACA went into effect.
“I was worrying about whether or not I’d be able to get a job and use my degree,” she said, “and it came in a very timely moment.”
At the time, she was interning at Dolores Street Community Services in San Francisco.
“I was able to help other people file their (DACA) applications,” she said. “I filed my own, and when I got my work permit, I was able to get a paid job.”
Between college and law school, she worked as legal services coordinator at Educators for Fair Consideration, a San Francisco nonprofit that provides resources and support to undocumented young people.
While considering law schools, she came across a brochure for Quinnipiac. Intrigued, she applied for the Dean’s Fellows Scholarship and was awarded full tuition.Making local change
As a law student at Quinnipiac, she initiated an effort to amend the admission language for the Connecticut Bar Examination to ensure it would include DACA recipients.
One of the eligibility criteria for bar admission is citizenship or lawful residence.
Along with Shelia Hayre, visiting associate law professor, Perez has worked to clarify the “lawfully residing” language to include people with DACA and other work authorization.
Hayre said she’s known Perez since she started teaching three years ago. “When I arrived, everyone said, ‘you’ve got to meet Denia,’” Hayre said.
During her time at Quinnipiac, Perez has reached out to local immigrant communities in New Haven.
In partnership with local community organizations, Perez has conducted know-your-rights workshops, created medical-legal partnerships to help doctors and lawyers collaborate on issues affecting low-income communities, and worked with undocumented parents who have citizen children to put in place standby guardianship in the event they were deported.
“She was everything they said she was and more when I met her,” Hayre said.
Perez approached Hayre, concerned she wouldn’t be able to sit for the bar.
“It makes sense for Connecticut to be proactive around the issue,” Hayre said. “Our bar should be open to the young people who passed every other thing and are able to work in the U.S.”
Perez is scheduled to testify in support of the proposal at a May 14 public hearing.Uncertainty as undocumented
As an undocumented immigrant, Perez said, she feels a general uncertainty and inability to plan for the long term “because DACA is not permanent and it’s definitely in a lot more in flux these days.”
The Trump administration has taken several actions to repeal DACA, a holdover policy from the Obama administration. As a result, Perez said she doesn’t let herself think long term, and knows she can’t travel abroad or rely on DACA renewing her work permit.
“It’s a general state of limbo where I am able to think about my life in these two-year period increments while I have DACA,” she said.
If DACA ends, Perez would not be able to work legally. There’s also the threat of deportation, but “I don’t really think about that as often,” she said.
As to pursuing a path to citizenship, she said, “that answer is complicated, because it assumes there is a pathway for me.”
To become a U.S. citizen, a family member or an employer must petition for a person, or a humanitarian-based organization could petition for a visa.
People cannot petition for themselves, and DACA provides no path to permanent citizenship. “There’s no immediate safety net or option for me to become a citizen, even if I wanted to,” she said.
Perez’s parents have green cards, making them permanent residents, and her father has petitioned for her, but because of a backlog, Perez said she won’t get a green card anytime soon. Ten years would be the best-case scenario, she said, adding that an employment-based application is just as complicated.
“There’s always more demand than there is supply,” she said. “We have these arbitrary caps and all these other issues that make it really hard to get an employment-based visa, even if you are qualified.”Law and life undocumented
After graduation, Perez plans to work with Make the Road New York in Brooklyn, doing deportation defense work through a fellowship with Immigrant Justice Corps.
“She’s going to be incredible,” Hayre said. “She’s exceptional and will use her career to make the United States a better place and help people in need. We’re proud to have her as our graduate.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Connecticut Bar Examination, administered by the state Judicial Branch, as the Connecticut Bar Association, a nonprofit organization supporting legal professionals.